Two Jews on a Train

"In applying an Old World sensibility to the present, the author underscores the nature of the divide between them, and the increasingly despairing punchline of each joke seems to become: Why did You abandon us?"—The New Yorker

"Somewhere between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Morey Amsterdam."—Kirkus Reviews

"There are tales of schnorrers, matchmakers, gossips, immigrants, a golf-playing rabbi.  . . . Between the lines are tales of the fragility of love, friendship and of life itself, and the possibilities of redemption. The strength of these stories is Biro's skill as a storyteller and his apparent love of the material. He has a light touch and the tales are short, but packed full of imagery and emotion."—Sandee Brawarsky, Jewish Week

"Biro is an engaging storyteller and the jeweled little worlds he creates rest on solidly imagined foundations."—Elaine Kalman Naves, Gazette (Montreal)

"You have to read Adam Biro . . . for the little details between the lines, which are awe inspiring!"—La liberté, on the French edition


A story from
Two Jews on a Train
Stories from the Old Country and the New
by Adam Biro

The Good Catch

     Kohn was the matchmaker in a small village in Poland. He was a shadchen. Well, to say "matchmaker in a village" is a misnomer. A matchmaker can never stay in one place; his profession forces him to travel from village to village, he has to be constantly on the road to gather news as a thistle gathers dust, to glean all the marvels, the horrors, the murders, the adulteries, the lottery winnings, the shameful births, the happy death, the examples to follow, and the examples to avoid. He has to draw the inventory of eligible parties, of the couples to assemble, of the young and not so young people he'll join for life.
     Kohn practiced an important profession, the most important after that of God. He was arranging life.
     You're going to tell me: "how about love?" You're going to speak to me about leaning, attraction, choice, affinity, desire, election, erection. You make me laugh! Marriages are made in heaven. And the matchmaker knows what decisions are taken there. Because those who decide down here on the basis of "I looooove her/him and she/he loooooooves me," well after ten years, or rather after five years . . . just ask them, they who gave themselves flesh and heart to the other, ask them if their soul still desires mingling their body with the adverse, inverse, body after three years of common snoring-grunting under the same eiderdown comforter?
     Kohn says: those who don't chose each other have nothing to regret. It's possible that they'll come to curse me. But who can tell where I might be on that day?
     Kohn says: let those with life experience, those who have lived, have become parent, have taught, let them decide. And the one whose job it is.
     Kohn says: don't think that at age eighteen you know what you want; and that what you want is good for you. Couples are molded by marriage. They come together, the spouses take on each other's shapes. They become one, intrinsically inseparable.
     So that's the shadchen. And from what does this personage, second only to God, live? He is given a part of the dowry. That's why he likes to fix up the poor with the rich. If he only united the rich among themselves he would lose half his income.
     One day, Kohn comes across Strauss, the poor shoemaker, in the street. He tells him as an aside, with an air of indifference:
     "Strauss, I have a great match for you" (when they say "for you" that means "for your daughter, for your son").
     Strauss is all ears. His daughter, his only child . . . What a burden. She is over thirty years old and has no husband.
     "Please tell me, tell me!"
     Kohn waits a long minute so as to heightens Strauss's eagerness.
     "Let's go to your house—no need to entertain the whole village with our business."
     Once comfortably installed in the parlor of the little house—Strauss is not rich, as I said,—Kohn has Strauss offer him a glass of vodka and latkes. Then not wanting to make the poor Strauss languish any longer, he hits him with:
     "He's twenty-three years old, six feet tall, blond, blue eyes, speaks three languages, and has a high rank in the navy."
     Strauss has trouble catching his breath. He empties two glasses of vodka before he is able to speak.
     "Kohn, this must be a dream. And what faults does he have? Why wasn't this admiral engaged years ago?"
     Kohn ignores the question and adds:
     "I forgot to mention his parents are immensely wealthy and he is an only son. He is not an admiral but it's a family tradition for them to be an officer in the navy."
     Strauss suppresses the urge to throw himself at Kohn's feet.
     "Kohn, I beg you, arrange a meeting with his parents as fast as possible."
     Kohn promises and leaves. As he opens the door he turns toward Strauss and tells him:
     "He has a tiny flaw, nothing important. He isn't Jewish."
     Strauss falls back on the arm of the chair, which breaks.
     "What! A small flaw you say? Kohn, have you gone mad? It's totally impossible. To give my daughter to a goy? But I'd rather die, Kohn. It's even worse than my death. It's the death of my daughter that you propose, and you even joke about it. Aren't you ashamed?"
     Kohn answers very calmly:
     "You are the one who should be ashamed. It is said in the Talmud that your first duty is to insure the marriage of your offspring. A Jewish woman must marry and have children. It is written. And now that I bring you the best match you could ever dream of you keep on sinning, you keep on not wanting to marry your unfortunate daughter who wishes it so dearly."
     Strauss is not well versed in the skill of pilpul. He runs short of arguments.
     "But to a goy, really!"
     "Strauss, did you take a good look at your daughter Rebecca? Allow me to be frank, just between you and me. She is in her thirties; she is sickly, she squints and limps, is flat butted and flat chested . . . No, don't get up, don't be angry, I'm a matchmaker, I'm only doing my job, and you, you're the father, you have obligations. So, don't make trouble. I repeat, she has nothing to fill a man's hand—nor his pockets for that matter as you are as poor as Job, and you can't give her any dowry. You see, I am doing this out of friendship, because you won't be able to pay me."
     "But the others, since they are wealthy, they'll pay you . . ."
     "They'll give me nothing, since you don't want their son!"
     Strauss puts his head between his hands.
     "Kohn, you are torturing me."
     He stands up, sways, paces round and round in the room, then suddenly, he stands up straight and declares:
     "The answer is no! She will remain an old maid rather than abjures the faith of her ancestors!"
     "As you wish," replies Kohn, who is outwardly relaxed but a maelstrom of agitation inside. It's your life, your daughter. Shalom."
     And he leaves.
     The shadchen is barely in the street when Strauss catches up with him.
     "Don't go so fast. There's no hurry. Come back, have dinner with us, we can talk in peace."
     "What you want to talk about? You have made up your mind. You are a good Jew in keeping your daughter in the religion of her ancestors. You only cause a very little bit of her immense unhappiness and yours along with it; she will never know a man, she won't have children, you will never hold adorable grandkids on your lap, your Rebecca, your daughter will become an old maid, irritable, grumpy, sad, she'll remain sickly, will even become very ill—and you, you who believes yourself to be a good Jew, you'll realize you're a bad Jew, because you are not respecting divine prescription. I would not blame you for absolutely wanting to give your daughter to a Jew if she were eighteen years old, if she was as beautiful as Spring, as Perlmutter's daughter for whom I found a magnificent match last month, and if your name was Rothschild. But none of this is important as long as you are happy with yourself.".
     Strauss goes crazy. He doesn't know what to do, how to respond, what decision to make. So yes, he'll give his daughter to this young goy so suitable in other respects, and on the eve of this shameful wedding he'll go away, leave the village. He'll take to the road as a traveling shoemaker. But then, who would take care of my poor wife who is so often bedridden? Well, she'll just have to come on the road with me . . . Oh, no I don't mean this, I am not going away. This is my village, my house, my work, the people here know me, my life is here.
     They sit down to eat. Kohn fills his belly, eats and drinks, raises his glass to the health of the Strauss family more and more often. As Rebecca is serving the meal, Kohn keeps on giving meaningful glances to the father. To his chagrin this latter realizes the extant to which his daughter is unattractive. He has never looked at her the way a man looks at a woman; how could he have dared? She's his daughter. But now things are serious. He looks at her discreetly: everything Kohn said about her is true. And moreover she's over thirty years old. She'll never marry. And suddenly, almost miraculously, there is a possible husband. It's the first time, and certainly the last. He must agree. After all, who knows, perhaps he'll want to become Jewish?
     "Say Kohn, do you think this young goy would agree to convert to Judaism?"
     "Frankly Strauss, I don't think so. We could try to ask the question to his parents, but it seems to me to be difficult, not probable."
     "But who are the parents?" asks Strauss.
     "The king of England, and the young man is the Prince of Wales"
     There's an astounded silence.
     Strauss is as if dumbfounded, overcome. One of the biggest fortunes in the world. Of course, the Prince of Wales is an officer in the British navy. The greatest navy in the world. And England is the greatest naval power. Of course, in those circumstances . . .
     "You know Strauss," remarks Kohn, "that the English royal family claims to be descended from David? Did you know this? From King David, thus they are Jews."
     Of course, in these circumstances. But really . . . David, that was a long time ago. And then . . . surely they don't eat kosher every day. Do they respect the Sabbath?
     Kohn senses the fish is biting. He keeps on going, this is not the time to let go. He gives it some slack, then pulls again, then more slack—he makes him drunk, drowns him with words, with true and false arguments, as many as possible . . . all the science, the mastery of the matchmaker is revealed in moments like these. Like a fisherman. Like a toreador—but corridas are getting scarce in Poland in those years. Kohn exerts himself. He breaks into a sweat. It's now that he's truly working. He doesn't give Strauss time to catch his breath, or think. Then when Kohn feels he has reached Strauss's psychological breaking point, a point when nothing more should be said, he suddenly turns silent.
     The meals ends in silence. Kohn is exhausted. As for Strauss . . . The English royal family . . . that, he hadn't expected. He asks to think it over for the night, which Kohn gracefully grants him, but not more.
     I won't describe to you Strauss's night. Hell in comparison to this night would be like a tour on a row boat in a sunny lake in the shade of weeping willow trees. I won't describe this night, as you have all experienced similar ones, you who are pious and more attached to ancestral values than to reason, or even worse, to feelings. I'll only remind you of the terms of the equation: on the one side, the Prince of Wales, on the other, Jewish law. The choice is horrendous, and I don't wish it upon you, in spite of the nights of insomnia you've all spent pondering identical decisions.
     But since we are speaking among ourselves, and we have a bit of time while Strauss tussles with himself, you might ask me what does the hapless Mrs. Strauss thinks of all this? Strauss is a domestic tyrant, and his gentle and miserable wife has only the right to say yes and amen. And don't think for a moment that this is only appearance, that she organizes everything in the shadows, like so many of her sisters in fate are doing. No, she simply doesn't exist. But that's another story . . .
     The next morning, or rather, at dawn, Strauss runs to the inn where Kohn stays when he is at the village. He runs to announce his decision to the matchmaker. It's yes! He does agree. His daughter's happiness has prevailed over his attachment to the faith. He wants to see the parents immediately, so that the deal can be concluded. Where are they? In whose house are they staying? What if someone swipes his Prince of Wales? Kohn appears at the door of the inn as if he had been waiting for him.
     "Kohn, my answer is yes. I can't tell you how hard this is on me, but my daughter's happiness comes first, even if it must be a bitter happiness. All right, since that's the only way, I'll accept the British royal family."
     Kohn sits down on one of the steps that leads to the inn. He pulls out an enormous red and dirty handkerchief from his pocket, as if to wipe off the sweat from his brow caused by so much work, and says in a very low voice, with his eyes vacantly looking straight ahead:
     "Whew! The most difficult is done, now all I have to do is convince the king of England."


Copyright notice: Excerpted from Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the New by Adam Biro, translated by Catherine Tihanyi, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Adam Biro
Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the New
Translated by Catherine Tihanyi
©2001, 142 pages
Cloth $17.00 ISBN: 0-226-05214-1
Paper $10.00 ISBN: 0-226-05216-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Two Jews on a Train.

See also: